Dialogue with Islam: the Way Forward.

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State of Affairs

Chrys McVey proposes dialogue with such a passion that the hardest heart ought to melt and fervently embrace dialogue without reservation.[1] Perhaps because my heart is not hard and indeed I was actively involved in interreligious dialogue, Joseph Kenny, O.P. of blessed memory who pulled me into it, I am not completely in accord with Chrys. My conclusion or response is that despite the superb work done by Chrys, there will be no imminent consensus neither now nor in the future because of the nature of the Religious system called Islam. This is because I consider it to be intrinsically violent. From Nigeria to Algeria, Kenya to Kuwait, Iran to Indonesia, Palestine to Pakistan, it is the same story.

It is not unheard of that once in a while someone who identifies himself as Christian perpetrates acts of violence. Whatever he says is the motivation, there are two conclusions: either he deliberately wants to soil the Christian name or he is looking to make a name on a grand platform. Why do I restrict it to these two? No Christian Scripture or Leader calls to violence. Secondly, it is easier to make a name when you name Christianity. Whereas the western mainstream Media (and sometimes governments) generally avoid linking violent terrorist actions with Islam, it is usually the case that even if one does not commit a crime in the name of Christianity, so long as he is a Christian, a link is usually sought and established, not matter how thin the line is.

Any attempt at a reference to the OT Scriptures as an excuse for violence by anyone means a lack of knowledge of Christianity. It is without doubt true that the OT has acts of violence recorded, and said to be sanctioned by God. Yet, the Christian salvation history accepts those as part of the JOURNEY through perilous times, in hostile environments. It goes on to teach that this journey has culminated in Christ Jesus. The Christian dispensation therefore eschews all forms of violence. The Crusades and such similar acts (properly called in Spanish “la Reconquista”) always referred to when violence in Islam is mentioned were as political as they were economic, but ultimately, attempts to take back what was taken away by Islam. This should always be clearly stated and without apology.

On the contrary, acts of violence recorded and recommended in the Quran are active and in force to the present – never as a journey, but as immutable as God himself. Preachers have been recorded to invoke these acts at different times, and teach their followers to perpetrate them. Where a lone member of Islam carries out acts of violence that negate the whole purpose of Chrys’ work, neither the Scriptures nor the preachers can distance themselves from these acts, because within that which is held as fundamental is the immutable call to violence. Herein lies the root of the problem.

While we do what we can on our part to see that there is dialogue (and that it is not our duty to tell the other part what to do), it behoves us to point out that unless certain teachings of Islam as found the Quran, Sharî`a and Sunnah are seen as circumstantial, not central, the effort towards dialogue and peace would remain just that – effort. The effort of so many good people living dialogue, not just doing in the likes of Chrys McVey, Joseph Kenny, Pierre Claverie and a host of many others may remain in vain if the truth is not faced and spoken when gathered in dialogue, especially with Islam.

The recent declaration of the Pope in the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelium Gaudium #253 that “our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” seems to me to be either ill-informed or perhaps motivated by those who never clearly point out the inherent violence in Islam, such as found in the writings of Chrys. It is true that the first part of the number quoted talks about essential training “solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs.”

However, I still find it inadequate in that a denial of violence as found in the Books is at variance with what Muslims truly believe even if they say otherwise. An excursus of the Quran amply demonstrates this. In fact, it will not be out of place to say violence is so far the only means through which Islam has known to ensure its survival from the very beginnings, with Mohammed himself. Have we not read in surah 9.29, “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued”? And their crime?

The Muslim mentality or world view being what it is, the invitation found throughout the writings of Chrys to suppress Christian core beliefs (or the position that Islam does not promote violence), all in a bid to “open up” to dialogue amounts to two things with the Muslim, from my experience of dialogue and interactions in all my years as a protégé of Joseph Kenny.

  1. The Muslim considers you to be insincere or at best unserious. He knows what his core beliefs are, and he knows that you know them. He knows too that throwing them up to arrive at some reasonable dialogue entails losing his religion. He would never throw away his core beliefs for anything. How then can a Christian do it if he is sincere? Or has he been overcome by the relativistic society of the day?
  1. The Muslim sees every opportunity to dialogue and acceptance as a means of furthering his cause – and he is adept at doing so. If there is anything so true in what I read in Chrys’ works, it is the saying “Do not welcome elephant trainers into your tent unless you are prepared to entertain elephants!” Europe has seen so much of this to the extent of open violence in the UK and France, with France now trying to retrace her steps, making counter laws now and then which are decried as islamophobic.

To further buttress this fact of conversion as the goal of Islam, I will make a “detour” to Nigeria. From the foundations of the Sokoto Caliphate in the early 19th century by Usman dan Fodio to this day, the focus has been to take Islam to the other end of the Atlantic. This has been partially achieved, with the means employed being violence. That is how Islam got to the South-West of Nigeria at a time when the Oyo Empire was dwindling. To the East/South-East unfortunately, the jihad was blocked by the Tiv. This quest to Islamize Nigeria was reignited by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first Premier of Northern Nigeria in the colonial era, and since then, has been propagated by various leaders.

General Babangida draconically inducted Nigeria as a full member of the world Muslim body, the Organization of Islamic Conference – now “Cooperation” (OIC) against the wishes of the generality of the people in 1986.[2] Since then, the average Muslim proudly states “Nigeria is an Islamic nation”. The situation on ground was definitely beyond signs; it was clear that there was a plan to systematically Islamize Nigeria. In August 1990, foreign ministers of the OIC countries adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam to serve as a guidance for the member states in the matters of human rights in as much as they are compatible with the Sharî`a Law.[3] Suffice it to note that Sharî`a law does not as much as admit the evidence of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.

The Way Forward.

Years of studying Islam and interreligious dialogue coupled with some years of practical engagement has taught me that the general textbook principles of dialogue may not hold the way to the future of dialogue. In the South-West of Nigeria where Islam arrived sometime in the 19th century, we may perhaps learn a different method of dialogue. Today, much of dialogue is geared towards arid theological discourse on high levels. In many places as proposed by Chrys, Christians are to leave their understanding of God – and eventually so should the Muslims – to a new understanding, perhaps a “new God”.

While dialogue based on some amorphous “god” has failed in all parts of Nigeria which without doubt has been one of the most volatile places since the 1970s (after so many years of using that approach), the South-West of Nigeria does not experience such religious violence. The South-West of Nigeria, originally populated by the Yorubas and partly conquered to Islam through the Jihadist campaigns of Usman da Fodio and his successors, follows a system where cultural or family roots take precedence over religion.

Consequently, despite the fact that the Yorubas are a mix of Islam, Christianity and the African Traditional Religions, never has anyone at any time heard of religious crisis among them. I have met a family where there are several African traditional religionists, Muslims, Catholics and Pentecostals. Curiously, most of them are leaders where they belong: one a Chief Priest of some deity, another an Imam, a Catholic Priest and a Pastor of some church. Among them, this is the rule, rather than the exception and the Dominicans in Nigeria are blessed to at least friars from such families. What I found interesting was that at the ceremonial events of one group, they all gather and celebrate, sharing their family meals. If the Imam says “may God bless us all”, all say “amen” and so with the rest of the family. Religion for them is more like “whatever works for you”.

My experience as a chaplain’s assistant in Ibadan as I visited hospitals told me that these people had faith, even if utilitarian faith. When I prayed for a Christian and made to move past someone I knew to be Muslim, they would call me to pray for them – who knows where healing will come from! If I didn’t know, I would approach them asking if they want me to pray for them – they usually accepted, and gladly too. But in the midst of this were some who would send me on my way even before I asked the question. This set me investigating such, only to discover that they belonged to the “Izala” sect, infiltrating from the North of Nigeria and teaching them that they must do away with anyone who is not of their religion. This group is known to be financed by the Muslim World League (MWL).[4]

As part of our formation in Nigeria, we have four semesters of Islam, after which we do a course on interreligious dialogue. My class was fortunate to have a Muslim teach this course. The first day, he was so nervous that he fumbled over and over within an hour. During the break, I approached the lecturer. I told him to feel free and say what he wanted to say without fear since we first bracket our religious beliefs even in a regular theology class and even so in a dialogue class. He was so full of unbelief: “this will never happen in a Muslim school”, he said. Though not the intention of the story, it is noteworthy that though he continues to teach there, we have never been  invited to do same at an Islamic institute.

By way of conclusion, I think that apart from the sterile principles, it is perhaps due to the amorphous nature of the “god” of interreligious dialogue that the effort has not yielded much visible fruit. There is that wise saying that “if you stand for nothing, you fall for anything”. Amorphousness smacks of falsehood or at best, an untruth, otherwise, definite stupidity. It will be hard for the “Other”, in this case the Muslim in dialogue, to think of the person engaged in dialogue with him as stupid. A quest for dialogue that would result into some kind of uniformity (as against unity) where the principles say “do not hold unto what distinguishes us” would smack any intelligent person as consisting of ulterior motives.

Over and over, Chrys quotes Albert Camus talk the Dominican friars: “Dialogue is only possible between people who remain what they are and speak the truth” (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.70), but it appears to me he had a different interpretation that may be rather far from what Camus was trying to pass across. It brings to mind a saying of Aristotle that has been a little refined to say “friends are dear to us, but dearer to us is truth” in reference to his tutor Plato (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I. vi,15). Why can’t we tell Muslims that we are not at home with injunctions of surah 9.5 or 9.30 for instance? Why should an innocent child who knows nothing be killed because he picked a piece of paper that has Quranic verses on the ground and Churches, homes burnt and men massacred and we keep quiet because we want “dialogue”?

Should we sell truth in a bid to dialogue or should we find means of dialoguing in such a way that our truths pass across without being a threat to the “Other”? Should we create another religion, even if with an amorphous “god” so as to achieve communion, even when it is absolutely clear the “Other” will never accede to such? In the quest for peaceful coexistence, would it be a bad idea to seek out our common cultural roots that in a way, identify us as equal creatures of God? Archbishop emeritus of Benin Archdiocese, Patrick Ekpu recently asked an important question that can be extended to all places: “Even if you remove Christianity, does the African culture promote the killing of your neighbour just because you disagree?” (Cf. Vanguard, August 13, 2013).

Perhaps there could be another conclusion. In one of Prof. Kenny’s articles, although he flatly refused the wholesale association of Islam with violence, he proposes “… that we should try to meet the legitimate aspirations of Muslims in society. At the same time we have to resist Muslim aggression, whether in the form of suicide bombing or the imposition of Sharî`a on non-Muslims. Such resistance has to be restrained and selective, so as to belie the accusation that we are waging war against the Muslim community.”[5]

This has given me new ideas that may be incorporated in our concept of dialogue. There should be no blanket form of dialogue applied to all societies. In Nigeria for instance, whereas the “standard form” of dialogue with Muslims may be fruitful in the South-West, it will never be in the north. Dialogue ordinarily is about two parties having a meaningful communication. In this communication, each party understands the language of the other. But language is beyond the simple use of words; there is also the “unspoken language”. This, I would want to examine more closely.

The OIC in its declaration of human rights upholds the dignity of the human person but only according to the Sharî`a (Cairo 1993, reaffirmed in Mecca 2005).[6] According to the Sharî`a, only Muslims have rights. Rights of all non-Muslims can only be determined according to the whims and caprices of the “superior” Muslim. This same charter of Cairo citing the charter of Mecca professed to promote and push forward Islam by any means.[7] This any means includes violence, a language best understood by Muslims – at least in the light of the evidence of present events in the world – including Nigeria.

If you speak and I do not understand, there is no communication, right? I speak the language of peace (and perhaps sincerely you do not understand this language) and you speak the language of violence. Perhaps in the spirit of “stretching out”, in order to have a meaningful dialogue, I should learn your language such that when you speak violence, I am also able to respond violence. About 12 years ago, in a city of Nigeria that always had violence fomented by Muslims, there was another occasion of massive killings of Igbos, most of whom are Christians (they are more like 90% Christians – at least culturally). This time, they decided to respond in kind. For the first time in the history of that State, the Governor came out to call for peace. For the first time, a governor invited leaders of this group to sit down to dialogue. For the first time in many years, there was no more violence in that city in the succeeding 6 years.

What happened within these intervening years is however very interesting: with the aid of government agencies, there was a systematic disarming of these Igbos through sporadic raids on their homes and business premises on the pretext that since there was peace, being armed was not necessary. Hardly had th process completed before crisis broke out again! Was this deceit or an orchestrated and carefully planned effort or a coincidence? I would have been happy if these people were still armed at this point to see what would have happened. As it is, we can only speculate.

My speculation however led me to the conclusion that insofar as the Igbos were ready to use the same language, a language understood by these miscreants, there was no crisis. With the understanding that they no longer had “a voice” with which to speak, crisis returned. It is this crisis that has led to the disarray, massacre, slaughter and perhaps more appropriately, genocide that is presently going on in Nigeria. Perhaps if they had remained capable of speech… oh that they had remained capable of speech, of speaking the same language!

Although “dialogue is the main challenge at the beginning of this new millennium for our Dominican preaching and teaching” as the Communique of “the first interfaith dialogue conference for Dominicans and their friends held in Assumption University, Bangkok, Thailand, from 7-12 February 2001” noted, I make bold to say the apparent fruitlessness of this effort is as a result of the fact that we speak different languages. Until we speak the same language in whatever setting, context or peculiar circumstance we may find ourselves, the process may remain sterile.

Dialogue must not proceed on the basis of ignored truths, but of open and respectful assertion of truth. Muslims and umbrella bodies such as the OIC or MWL who claim to reject the evils committed in the name of Islam by those they claim are not acting according to Islam must openly condemn these groups, but would they? Boko Haram continues unfettered without a word of condemnation from the OIC; why would anyone think they are not foot soldiers for OIC or MWL?

-Benjamin Kwaghgba, O.P.-

[1]This article is written within the framework of editing the collected works of Chrys McVey, O.P. of blessed memory.

[2]Michael Holman, “Nigeria, Politics; Religious Differences Intensify”, in Financial Times, (24 February 1986) See also http://www.oic-oci.org/oicv2/states/ (Accessed 15.01.2014) and Femi Ajayi, “Foundation of Religious Intolerance in Nigeria”on http://nigeriaworld.com/columnist/ajayi/intolerance.html (Accessed 15.01.2014)

[3]Cf. Preamble to “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.” http://www.oic-oci.org/english/conf/fm/19/19%20icfm-political-en.htm#RESOLUTION NO. 49/19-P (Accessed 15.01.2014)

[4]Cf. David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), pp.152-3

[5]Joseph Kenny, “Islam: ‘Authentic’ or ‘Fanatical’” (http://www.dhspriory.org/kenny/IslamAuthFan.htm), accessed 25.06.2014

[6]For this reaffirmation, see the “Ten-year Programme of Action  to Meet the Challenges Facing the Muslim Ummah in the 21st Century” at the “Third Extraordinary Session of the Islamic Summit Conference”, 1,VIII,2: http://www.oic-oci.org/ex-summit/english/10-years-plan.htm

[7]Cf. Numbers 1 and 6 of the Mecca declaration: http://www.oic-oci.org/english/conf/is/3/3rd-is-sum.htm

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